Workers unite! Or else!

The changing face of the Seattle Times family.

TWO DAYS AFTER Flossie Pennington returned to The Seattle Times in the aftermath of the newspaper strike, she was called into her manager's office. Pennington, who held an administrative position in the advertising department and served as a picket captain during the strike, says her manager told her that she wasn't being friendly enough to her strike-breaking colleagues. "I wasn't smiling enough," Pennington recalls her manager telling her. "My body language was unapproachable."

At the Times, strikers will get along with strikebreakers— or else. That, at least, is the message some staffers say they are getting in light of the company's new "post-strike addendum" to its "bias-free workplace" policy, nicknamed the "anti-shunning policy" by employees. Just as the Times prohibits harassment or discrimination on the basis of race and gender, so it now does on the basis of "ideology related to unionism." Forbidden behavior, according to the detailed page-long policy, includes shunning, unwelcome jokes, and any type of retaliation related to the strike.

If the policy is an attempt to make the Times one big happy family again, it hasn't yet done the trick. Since the strike settled January 8, the union has filed 70 grievances against the paper. Overall, tension is considerable amid wide-scale and unsettling changes, including downsizing, reorganizing, and scaling back of editorial coverage. The Times is, staff and management agree, a different paper after the strike. What's less clear is why, and what the ultimate effect will be on Seattle's largest daily newspaper. It is not really a surprise that things are different at the Times after the strike, given its behavior during the walkout. The strike lasted seven weeks at both of Seattle's dailies, but the Hearst-owned Seattle Post-Intelligencer seemed to take it in stride, whereas it was a more personal affair at the family-owned Times. Publisher Frank Blethen and his managers acted betrayed when their exceptionally well-treated employees, as they saw it, walked out. Strikers, in turn, felt betrayed when managers guarded the building as if threatened by a marauding mob and then proceeded to hire permanent replacements for people they had once called irreplaceable.

Employees at the P-I are having quite a different experience. No jobs have been cut or changed; no grievances have been filed. "A lot of people are saying to each other in the hallways, 'God, I'm glad I don't work for The Seattle Times," says Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild President Ruth Schubert, who is also a P-I reporter. "That has not always been the case."

It is a testament to the rawness of emotion generated by the strike at the Times that many staffers and managers say there's little point in discussing the experience with each other. "Nobody wants me to go out there and talk about working 49 days straight," says Executive Editor Michael Fancher, "and likewise, I don't particularly want to hear what it was like walking on the picket line."

In any case, there is plenty of current news to focus on. The bleakest is the Times' downsizing. Because of the millions of dollars the company says it lost during the strike, it wants to shed 10 percent to 20 percent of its 2,500-person staff. According to a company memo, at least 82 people have decided to go voluntarily, taking advantage of early retirement and severance packages. Aerospace reporter Chuck Taylor—who served as managing editor of the strike paper, the Seattle Union Record—and editorial columnist Casey Corr are two of the latest to join an exodus of talent that includes Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Nalder and Microsoft expert Paul Andrews.

As the company considers what other positions to cut, it is bringing strikers back in stages from a recall list. While a settlement agreement with the Guild gives the company until July 9 to call strikers back, it has already summoned in more than 70 percent, putting callbacks ahead of schedule.

Nonetheless, the Guild claims that the Times is leaving strike leaders lingering on the list, and many of the grievances filed by the Guild concern such cases. (The grievances are currently the subject of nonbinding mediation.) "Unable—and apparently unwilling—to put the strike behind them for the sake of labor relations, advertisers, and readers, Times managers have turned to a ground war," read a letter submitted to the journalism Web site Media News on behalf of a staffer by Guild President Ruth Schubert.

A cause c鬨bre is copy editor Ivan Weiss, a 33-year veteran of the Times, union shop steward, and notorious heckler of "scabs," as he calls them. By his own account, Weiss yelled at top bosses Blethen and Sizemore as they crossed the picket line. Sizemore insists the company is bringing everyone back, including Weiss, strictly according to seniority and job classification, as the settlement agreement demands. And in truth, compared to most of those who have returned to work on the copy desk, Weiss does hold a slightly lower job classification—which he believes is related to his outspokenness predating the strike (but that doesn't help him with his present grievance).

Management vehemently denies that they are considering workers' strike-related actions. "All the changes that have taken place are related to the need to be successful from a financial point of view," says Times President Mason Sizemore. The company says the strike cost it millions of dollars, though it won't provide any specific numbers.

WHEN EMPLOYEES do get called back to work, they must deal with subtler issues, such as the anti-shunning policy. As management describes it, the policy is a fine, even noble, idea, one that gives everyone at the paper—strikers and strikebreakers alike—a "clean slate."

The policy has support from both sides. "They absolutely had to do that," says Taylor, the reporter and Union Record editor. But others allege that in practice, the policy is used to harass strikers by monitoring their every expression. "Every striking worker was being scrutinized to a degree that was just suffocating," says Pennington, who left within a week after being reproached about her "unapproachable body language." She has filed a grievance with the Guild.

Pennington's former manager declined to comment on her case. Times President Mason Sizemore denies the policy is being abused, saying, "We have people all over the building that don't smile."

True enough. In the advertising and circulation departments—where workers' economic concerns fueled the strike—managers, strikers, and strikebreakers are particularly wary of one another, and outbreaks of tears are not uncommon. One advertising employee who walked the picket line, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says she feels so unwelcome back at work that it reminds her of her long-ago participation in school desegregation. "The last time I felt what I feel now is when I was bused across town, spit at, and had rocks thrown at me," she says.

She and others are also upset about the jobs they have returned to, which in many cases are different from the ones they left. Full-timers have been scaled back to part-time, and part-timers have been scaled up. Employees who once worked normal hours now find themselves on a schedule of four 10-hour days a week. Although the company insists no one is being "forced" to work such a schedule, the Guild claims that one cancer survivor was given a four/10 workweek despite telling her boss it would not allow her the time she needed to rest.

In addition, advertising sales representatives who struck were taken off their old accounts. And long-established teams throughout advertising and circulation were broken up, their members reassigned to new terrain, sometimes very far from their homes. Several affected staffers say they have been given little or no reason for the changes and can discern no rationale other than punishment.

Guild representative Liz Brown says that in one meeting with the company, she and other union members asked the manager of home delivery, Mike Sheehan, why he had moved his employees around. "He said, 'Well, we knew there was a lot of anger, and we felt people needed a fresh start,'" Brown recalls. "When I pointed out that others weren't moved, he said, 'Well, strikers were the ones who needed a fresh start.'" To Brown, that's glaring discrimination.

Sheehan did not return a call for comment, and Sizemore says he is unfamiliar with that conversation. The Times president, however, says that he has "absolutely not" instituted a "fresh start" policy. (Although a subsequent company memo directly refers to the need for a fresh start with advertisers and others.) Rather, he says the company has gone through a kind of redistricting as it downsizes and looks for new efficiencies. The result is fewer so-called districts, whether reporting beats or home delivery regions. That means, Sizemore says, "somebody is going to have to move." He refers to a reporter who worked and lived in Snohomish County before the strike but was reassigned to Bellevue, causing her to file a grievance. "Well, that [Snohomish County] office has closed," he says.

Sizemore says another factor in the reorganization is the attempt to minimize disruption for advertisers, who were assigned new sales reps during the strike.

At the same time, Sizemore concedes that strike-related "relationship issues" were sometimes a factor, especially in the home delivery department. During the strike, he says, the self-employed carriers who deliver newspapers door-to-door continued to work, and that made for some unpleasant encounters with striking Times employees who were their supervisors before the strike. The carriers felt "harassed and fearful," Sizemore says. Consequently, he says, the ex-strikers were reassigned so that they weren't supervising the same people.

Another "relationship issue" has emerged among the editorial page writers, of whom all but one marched the picket line. The page editors have taken the writers off the policy-making editorial board, meaning they still write the editorials but don't necessarily set the agenda behind them. Now, the page editors, the publisher, and his family members shape the official voice of the newspaper.

"In my own mind," explains Mindy Cameron—the outgoing editorial czar who continues to help manage the page during a transition period—being on the editorial board "is a privilege conferred by the publisher." The privilege has been withdrawn, she says frankly, because by striking, the writers "took an action that was destructive of the newspaper."

That sounds like punishment, but Cameron puts it differently. "It's a post-strike period; we're just sort of evaluating relationships," she says. Perhaps relationships will be evaluated differently after she's gone, since successor James Vesely seems more pragmatic about the strikers in his department. "I need them," he says. Downsizing has cut his stable of writers in half, leaving only three.

In general, the post-strike transition has been easiest in the editorial departments. "I'm actually kind of impressed by how everybody has tried to keep things civil," says reporter Taylor, who attributes his departure to having caught the entrepreneurial bug while putting out the Union Record. "I mean everybody knows where everybody stands. There's not a lot of point in sending out signals."

Reporter Sally Macdonald, who crossed the picket line, agrees. "One of the nicest things that happened to me after the strike is that one of the Guild leaders came up to me with a piece of candy and said, 'Truce?'" High-profile strikebreaker and columnist Nicole Brodeur hasn't exactly been besieged with candy and good wishes. Asked if she is getting the cold shoulder, she says succinctly, "Uh-huh." But, she says, "It gets a little better every day."

Even if the mood around the office continues to improve, it is in the editorial departments where some of the biggest changes are happening for readers. Sunday's personal technology section has been dropped, at least for the time being, as have the book section and zoned editions with detailed coverage of the suburbs. As people leave and positions are cut, certain beats get less coverage—aerospace, for instance.

The strike has caused a re-evaluation, allows Executive Editor Fancher. "You don't just automatically put back in everything you've lost." He says that's not necessarily a bad thing; he likens it to the '90s recession when cutbacks forced the paper to think hard about what it wanted to do and not to do. "The strength of the investigative team grew out of that," he says. He won't yet say what the paper's new priorities might be.

At least temporarily, though, the paper has scaled back its ambitions. "Nobody's talking about being the nation's best regional newspaper at the moment," Fancher says, adding that the paper now has two focal points, financial stability and marketplace competition (in other words, beating the P-I). "What that says is, if it isn't necessary to those focal points, we're not going to do [it] right now." Some plans in the works before the strike have been shelved, including the creation of a "spotlight team" for delving deeply into breaking news and the launch of online and public forums.

All in all, the relatively short strike has exacted a heavy toll on the Times—perhaps too heavy to blame entirely on the strike. Although executives have repeatedly stressed that the changes under way are due to the financial impact of the strike, they concede in interviews that they may have had to do some degree of belt-tightening anyway because of the slowdown in the economy. "Employment advertising is down by double digits across the country," Sizemore says. "Whether those kinds of factors would have led us to cost-containment measures, I don't know. All we know is the hand we're dealt." That hand is the company's financial picture.

That the economy has a hand in the current turbulence at the Times is perhaps a small, sad kind of consolation for strikers (some of whom didn't really want to be striking), who waged a difficult and costly battle on behalf of disparate groups of workers.

There aren't too many bright sides to all this, but one is that circulation—though down as a whole—is up in newsstand sales. It actually doubled during the strike, when the company gave away the paper for free, and is still doing better than usual with the paper's halved post-strike price of 25 cents. And while the strike wrecked numerous relationships, it also forged new ones on the picket line. "We really bonded out there," says reporter Chuck Taylor. For the first time, he says, editorial, advertising, and circulation employees all got to know each other. "In the long run, I think that's going to be good for the company."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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